Ideas@TheCentre – The Centre for Independent Studies


Ideas@TheCentre brings you ammunition for conversations around the table.  3 short articles from CIS researchers emailed every Friday on the issues of the week.

Identity politics and populism

Jeremy Sammut

09 September 2016 | Ideas@TheCentre


identity politics 1An online newspaper marked the first sitting of the federal parliament by encouraging readers to enter some basic personal information into a search engine.

The results told you how well you were represented in parliament — based on the number of MPs and senators who reflected your age, gender, sexual preferences, education, ethnic and religious details.

This is an insight into what passes for democracy in the age of identity politics: only those with ‘lived experience’ are seen as able to legitimately represent the best interests of identity group x, y, or z.

This was also the theme of some of the coverage of some maiden speeches. The gist was that finally minority groups were better represented in parliament due to the identities of some of the new parliamentarians.

This isn’t a bad thing, of course. Minorities standing for parliament and getting elected on their merits is a great victory for and measure of the depth of community tolerance and acceptance.

But at a time when Establishment politics is facing a crisis of legitimacy in many western countries, I’m not sure that political/media class focusing on identity politics is particularly helpful. I suspect it helps widen the gulf between elites and the masses.

The subtext behind the obsession with ‘respect’ for difference is that ordinary people are bigoted and need to be lectured to by their ‘betters’ and  have ‘diversity’ rammed down their throat for their own good.

The default cultural attitude of many ‘insiders’ encourages ‘outsiders’ to turn away and vote for the kind of populists who love to take cheap — if often unerringly accurate — pot-shots at ‘out of touch’ politicians.

Finnish Fantasies

Steven Schwartz

09 September 2016 | Ideas@TheCentre

finland flag 1As a call to action, “Let’s imitate Finland” is unlikely to stir many hearts. Yet, for some critics of Australian schooling, it’s a rallying cry. To them, Finland is an educational nirvana with high paid teachers delivering excellent outcomes despite short school hours, an aversion to homework, the absence of external assessments and no annoying school league tables.

If Australia would only ditch NAPLAN (our external assessment program), erase the My School website (which contains information about school performance), shorten the school day and forget about homework (and pay teachers more, of course), we could become an educational powerhouse — just like Finland.

Ironically, the reason that critics choose Finland as a model is because it performs well on external standardised tests. Specifically, Finland scored highly on tests conducted by the OECD’s international Program for International Student Assessment, widely known as PISA.

As Jennifer Buckingham notes, Finland is an unlikely model for Australia. Its entire population is not much larger than Sydney’s. It has little cultural or racial diversity, few disadvantaged schools and a widely shared social consensus about what children should learn and how they should be taught. In other words, Finland is very different from Australia. In addition, its PISA status is slipping. In 2012 (the latest scores available), Finland did not make it into the top 10.

Today’s top PISA performers are all Asian — Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Macau, and Japan. Like Finland, these places are culturally homogenous, but this is where the similarity ends. In most other ways, their educational cultures are the opposite of Finland’s. They have long school days, lots of homework, rigorous national assessments, public accountability and plenty of competition among schools.

Predictably, educators are now urging us to emulate Asia.  This is no more sensible than imitating Finland. We can learn from other places, but we cannot just impose their ways on our much more diverse population. Our students deserve an educational system designed specifically for Australian students, schools, and culture.

Philosophy not the answer to literacy problem

Jennifer Buckingham

09 September 2016 | Ideas@TheCentre

philosphy rodin the thinker 1Can an hour a week of philosophy lessons really ‘dramatically increase scores in literacy and numeracy’? This bold claim is based on an evaluation of a primary school philosophy program in English schools.

The evaluation of the Philosophy 4 Children program compared the reading, maths and writing scores of students in two groups of schools — those that offered the philosophy lessons for an hour a week for a year during grade 4 or 5 and those that did not. It reports that the students who took part in the philosophy program had the equivalent of an additional two months growth in reading and maths scores compared to students that did not.

At first glance this looks like a substantial gain, and indeed it might be if the gain was achieved over the 12 month period the program was implemented. However, this score gain is measured by the difference in scores between reading and maths tests that were four years apart — the end of Year 2 and the end of Year 6.

It is not known which other programs and practices might have been implemented in the schools that did and did not offer the philosophy program over that time. Indeed, the relatively minimal positive impact of the program is confirmed by the very small statistical effect sizes — a more widely accepted measure in educational research.

It is tempting to believe cheerful, confident claims that there is a simple and enjoyable solution to the nation’s persistent levels of low literacy. But, like most solutions that attempt to side-step the more challenging process of methodical, explicit reading instruction, the notion that congenial class discussions about ethical and moral issues will ‘dramatically’ improve reading and maths is too good to be true.

Learning to use philosophical reasoning arguably offers benefits to students all the way through their education. However, conflating the inherent value of studying philosophy with improvements in reading and maths serves only to muddy the waters. And the irony of making non sequitur claims that do not hold up to critical scrutiny about the effects of philosophy teaching cannot go un-noted.